Final Fritillary Makes Fifty

As 30 Days Wild draws to a close for another year, we are managing to go out with a bit of a bang.  Having already had a very successful June, seeing our first ever Marsh & Heath Fritillaries, we set off to Wales in search of our final fritillary and 50th butterfly species – the High Brown Fritillary. Some of the land we went on was private, so I can’t disclose the exact location but we were in the Alun Valley area, courtesy of an organised and escorted trip by Butterfly Conservation.

The High Brown Fritillary is apparently the UK’s most threatened butterfly species, remaining in only a few sites in England and only one in Wales. It happened to be the hottest day of the year so far for our walk – challenging conditions for an unfit middle-aged couple!

For the first site we visited we parked (I say “we parked” but we got a lift there from the very kind Mike) next to a dried up river bed. There were a few pools remaining and it was great to see loads of what we think were toad tadpoles wriggling in the shallows. They’d got their back legs but no front ones yet; fingers crossed they complete their metamorphosis before their pool dries up completely.

We headed up a slope to an open area of bracken that is being managed for fritillaries. Loads of large fritillaries were visible darting about the bracken – a mix of Dark Green and High Brown. The High Browns were a really rich dark orangey brown colour, the Dark Greens being a bit more muted, but at the speed they all flew, it was difficult to tell which was which. It soon became apparent that the fritillaries had little intention of stopping to get their photos taken. A ready rule soon came into practice – if a large fritillary landed it was a Dark Green one; if it flew past you like the clappers, it was probably a High Brown. Despite repeated attempts to chase them down, the High Browns escaped our cameras at this site. Thankfully the Dark Greens were a bit kinder to us. This one posed nicely for Chris on a thistle flower.

Then Mike spotted a pair of mating Dark Greens and we all rushed to get a photo of something!

Having had enough baking in the heat at the first site, we moved onto another site a mile or two away. This also had lots of High Browns with perhaps fewer Dark Greens. Apparently some other lucky butterfly spotters had got plenty of good photos of the High Browns earlier in the day – our timing was not so good.  The cloud cover meant a lot of the fritillaries had gone down into the bracken and weren’t flying, making them virtually impossible to spot.  They do particularly like thistle flowers and a local guide pointed out a thistle that had had High Browns nectaring on it in the morning. It seemed worth a shot, so I staked out this thistle for a few minutes. Having limited patience, I soon got bored of looking at a butterfly-less thistle, so reached into my bag for some water. No sooner had I done so than a High Brown Fritillary landed on the thistle. Water bottle cast aside, I grabbed the camera again and managed a few frantic shots before it flew off. None of my photos would win any awards, but they are at least identifiable as High Brown Fritillaries – on the first photo you can see an extra row of brown spots between the outer edge and the silver spots – the Dark Green Fritillaries don’t have these.

We saw lots of other butterfly species during the day – Small Heath, Comma, Red Admiral, Meadow Brown, and Skippers – most of which were also bombing around in the sunshine too fast to photograph. Heading back to the car we saw a patch of nettles covered in Peacock caterpillars – the next generation in the making and a lot easier to photograph than fast flying butterflies.

So we’ve “bagged” our final fritillary species and our 50th butterfly species in total. Only 8 more species to go (9 if we count the Cryptic Wood White over in Northern Ireland). It was a really great day in Wales, with a lovely bunch of people.

And to finish the day – a bottle of Wood White beer – a new beer produced by Wood’s brewery with part of the sales going to Butterfly Conservation. Always happy to do our bit for conservation!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barcud Coch & Cwm Elan – A Welsh Day Trip

Barcud Coch & Cwm Elan – well I hope I spelled them right (now I’m also worrying that I’ve spelled “spelled” wrong – should it have been spelt?) – or in English, red kites and the Elan Valley for a fantastic day out. We headed over to the Elan Valley first as several friends had recommended it as being well worth a visit. We somewhat underestimated how much was there and only had time to drive around about half of it, but the half we did see was amazing. The Elan & Claerwen valleys have been dammed in 6 places and the result is beautiful reservoirs set in even more beautiful countryside.

Our visit was on a bit of a dreary day weather-wise, but it had the advantage of giving everything a beautiful misty (bordering on foggy) atmosphere.

There was snow on some of the highest peaks, but nothing to hamper our exploration. In places the road was lined by avenues of tall trees, but elsewhere the views were pretty breath taking.

None of the dams were actually flowing on our visit, but hopefully next time we go back they might be. We found a well-kept (and surprisingly empty) bird hide, from which we could just about make out some ducks in the distance – too far away to get decent photos, but just close enough to identify them as a male (bottom) and female (top) goldeneye.

After the dams, we headed back through the small town of Rhayader to go to the Red Kite Feeding Station at Gigrin Farm. We’d pre-booked spaces in their photographic hide and had to be there by 2pm for the feeding. Gigrin Farm have been feeding red kites since the early 1990s. Having started with just a few pairs, they now regularly have over 300 red kites coming to the feeding station. So we were expecting a lot of kites, but have honestly never seen anything quite like it.

As we approached the hides, we spotted a huge white bird in the distance across the field.  Turned out it was a leucistic red kite; leucistic birds are not the same as albinos as they still have pigment in their eyes. Apparently up to 1% of the Welsh red kites are actually white or partially white.

As 2pm drew closer we could see more birds amassing in the surrounding trees. They clearly all knew what time the food was due.

2pm on the dot and a tractor appeared to dish out the meat for the birds. Within seconds the sky was full of swirling kites – literally hundreds of them. Chris took a video just with his phone which gives some idea of the sheer number of birds filling the sky.

Red kite phone video

I then tried to film them as they swooped down to pick up the meat. They are so fast it looks as if the film has been speeded up, which it hasn’t.

Red kites at Gigrin

Initially we thought this was great and we were going to get loads of amazing photos as they were all so close. Then we discovered the problem – there were so many and they moved so fast, it was impossible to focus on just one and get a nice sharp photo. We can now understand why small birds flock together in large numbers to confuse predators; this massive flock of kites had the same effect confusing us photographers. So although we took over 750 photos between us, I don’t think a single one is as crisp and clear as we would have liked. In our defence we weren’t helped by the dull overcast weather and it may have been better on a sunny day.

Having said all of that, it was still an absolutely stunning spectacle. Once we stopped worrying about the photos and just stood back and watched, it was just incredible. We have seen red kites before of course, but never so close up. I hadn’t realised how huge they are; their wingspan is pushing 2 metres!

The numbers swooping down at any one time were incredible.

This next photo looks like it is a composite shot of 4 birds, but is actually 4 in a row, all swooping down and off again one after another.

When viewed in the sky they almost formed an abstract pattern silhouetted against the sky, wings pointing in every conceivable direction.

Their aerial acrobatics were phenomenal, twisting and turning as they dived. They’d scoop up a piece of meat in their talons, then bend over to transfer the prize to their mouths to eat.

Here are a few more photos of them for no other reason other than they are really photogenic birds.

The white kite that we’d seen as we arrived put in several appearances, easy to spot amongst the more usual coloured ones. He/she appeared to have a number tag on his wing, so may be part of some study.

Red kites of course weren’t the only birds of prey making the most of the meaty picnic. We saw several buzzards watching from the trees. Perhaps because they are slightly smaller than the red kites, they are content to wait their turn.

We didn’t see any come down while we were there (although to be honest there may have been some amongst the melee of red kites), but we did see this one glide beautifully into the tree, displaying its gorgeous fan shaped tail.

And of course there were large members of the crow family making the most of the opportunity too. Initially we thought they were all carrion crows, but I think there were a few rooks lurking in there too – distinguishable by their paler beaks and pointier looking heads.

Final treat of the day – a heron flew lazily (in comparison to the kites at least) across the field and landed in a tree.

Hopefully we can go back to see the kites again in the summer when the light should be better and we can perhaps get crisper photos. But in the meantime we’ve got the memories of one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles we’ve ever seen.